COVERING an area of 7.2 hectares between the B5099 and the A5152, Wrexham Cemetery may just be one of the town's finest hidden secrets.

The earliest known record of the site is from 1535 in Henry VIII's Valor Ecclesiasticus, when it was known as Cae'r Cleifion (the field of the sick). By 1840, a lease from the Bishop of St Asaph refers to it as Tera Lepresorum (The Lepers' Land) and with the growing town of Wrexham full of factories, belching gas plants, 600 pigsties and three slaughterhouses, the stench of sickness was never far away.

Rapid population growth combined with endless outbreaks of infectious disease led to lack of burial space in most towns in the 19th century and Wrexham was no exception. The graveyard at the Parish Church, St Giles was full by the late 18th century and this led to a new cemetery being opened on Ruthin Road in 1793. This was also becoming full by the late 19th century. By 1868, Wrexham Borough Council recognised the need for a new cemetery and they eventually purchased just over five acres of land on the north side of Ruabon Road in 1874.

"When the cemetery opened in 1876 there was no such thing as public open space, so it became in effect Wrexham's first park," explains cemetery development officer, John Whittaker. "The Victorian concept was that you would have a sanitary place to bury your dead when church graveyards were filling it up. It was a place to take the air, renew the spirit and as a result the layout was designed to look like a park."

The layout of the cemetery was designed by Yeo Strachan, the then Borough Surveyor of Wrexham. Originally consisting of 10 acres immediately to the rear of the cemetery chapel, it was designed as a 'garden cemetery' for the 'passive recreation of the people of the Borough'. Most of the original layout has been preserved and today the cemetery features much of the original tree planting undertaken by Strachan, who was buried in the cemetery when he died.

Through his research, John is now beginning to reveal more and more of the cemetery's secrets, which he is sharing with the public through a number of tours and workshops that pick out different aspects of the site, from its trees to its huge number of graves relating to the town's longstanding Polish community.

"We have something like 1,200 Polish burials here," explains John. "The community settled in the Wrexham area around the time of the Second World War when Poland was being attacked by Germany and the Soviet Union.

"In Italy, the Polish fought side-by-side with the British Army and from there the field hospital was shipped to the UK in August 1946 when the Polish hospital and military camp was established in Penley."

The complex in Penley had been part of a US military hospital but was given over to Polish patients in 1946 and at its peak, the campus-style hospital was home to 2,000 patients and staff. The community even established a cinema, a chapel and recreation club, with patients eventually settling there after being displaced by the war, as the hospital continued to care for Polish ex-servicemen and their families for nearly 60 years. The hospitals served not only servicemen but also their families and the wider Polish community of civilians who had spent the war in displaced persons camps in India, East Africa and the Middle East and eventually made their home in Britain.

"Today you can say there are two Polish communities in Wrexham," says John. "There's the older established Poles that have been here since the late 1940s and then there's the newer European migrants who have come since 2004.

"The Poles fought alongside the Allies in lots of theatres of war and we have many graves here from people who fought the Germans when they invaded Poland, as well as many who fought in Italy at places like Monte Cassino. There are also people here who were involved in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 and others who were in the Secret Polish Army."

As John shows me around the cemetery he points out many interesting details, such as how ornate many of the Victorian monuments are compared with the more modern ones. Stone would be imported from places such as Italy, with Wrexham's better off families creating graves with Gothic carvings, Celtic crosses and a large number of crucifixes.

Among the many Polish graves dotted across the cemetery are ones belonging to Jan Piłsudski, a politician and younger brother of Józef Klemens Piłsudski, who is viewed as a father of the Second Polish Republic and a founder of the modern independent Poland; and Dr Marja Grabska, an ex-prisoner of Ravensbrück concentration camp which held 130,000 female prisoners during the Second World War, 50,000 of whom perished. She settled in Wrexham after liberation and died in Penley in 1966. "It's a fascinating story," adds John. "I think the fact her gravestone is in English shows she must have really felt part of the community."

The last few years has seen an extensive restoration programme carried out across the cemetery, thanks to a £1.5 million National Lottery grant (through the Heritage Lottery Fund) which was used to conserve the listed buildings, refurbish the listed fencing and entrances and research and display the history of the site. It is now on the register of Historic Parks and Gardens of Wales and is a listed Grade II area, but at the time of the bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund the buildings were on the 'buildings at risk' list and were in need of restoration and improvement.

As part of the community work to be undertaken, John was appointed as a part-time development officer supporting community involvement - including gathering stories about the cemetery's history, which could be used on information panels and trails on-site.

"People can now ask where a relative's grave is and get assistance in finding it," added John, who previously worked for the council as senior parks and countryside officer. "They can also access computers in the research area and we are now getting a lot of family history 'tourists' wanting to find out more about their family.

"I've met three different family groups from America tracing their links and without the generous funding of National Lottery players these beautiful buildings would still be at risk and the history of those buried here would be a mystery to us all."

John will be hosting a Polish Graves Walk on Saturday, May 11 at 11am and a Tree Walk on May 21, at 2pm. Both events are free but donations can be made to the new Cemetery Friends Group.

Call John on 07753771645 or email for more information or to book a place.